The Best Salt-Free Flavor Enhancers

Use these delightful alternatives and avoid the health hazards of too much salt.

August 13, 2014
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For good heart health, we've all been coached to limit sodium consumption. And with good reason: A new study links the massive amounts of sodium many of people consume with major impacts, including 1.6 million cardiovascular-related deaths a year.

As you might expect, across the board, sodium consumption is far above the recommended levels of 2.0 grams per day. In fact, at a whopping 3.95 grams, the average global level is nearly double what's recommended.

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In the latest research from Tufts University, researchers analyzed 107 previously published studies to show just how sodium overload affects blood pressure and your risk for heart disease. Again, as expected, as sodium intake increases, so does your risk of having some catastrophic cardiac event. (Check out these three minerals that can lower your blood pressure.)

For many people, the toughest part of cutting back on sodium involves kicking their processed-food habit. Food manufacturers often rely on excess sodium (and other preservatives) to enhance flavor and extend shelf life. Fortunately, there are natural alternatives to sodium that can improve taste and prevent spoiling without increasing your risk for cardiac calamity. And the bonus feature of these natural alternatives is that they make your food taste wonderful in the process!

Natural Alternative Flavor Enhancers
Herbs and spices are often thought of as enhancing the flavor of the meal—and they do! But the term "flavor enhancer" is applied to something that can increase your ability to taste other flavors in the dish you're preparing. That thing may or may not have its own flavor.

Salt is an example of a substance that brings out the other flavors in your meal. But if you wanted to cut back on sodium, what could you substitute it with besides MSG, hydrolyzed protein, or the other artificial flavor enhancers that food processors use? One answer: acidic foods like lemon and white wine vinegar!

Chemically, acidic substances like these lower the pH of the dish. But the effect on your palate is that you notice more of the many other flavor components present in that dish. It's a very common practice of those who cook to just add a wee splash of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon to savory meals to make the flavors pop. These very healthy natural flavor enhancers are delicious alternatives to sodium.

 

Beyond that, herbs and edible flowers are other flavorful ways to tastily reduce your salt intake.

Some Fun Flavor-Enhancing Ideas:

  • Fresh basil or tarragon in your scrambled eggs
  • Basil, thyme, oregano, bay leaves, and parsley to flavor sauces and soups
  • Nasturtiums and marigolds in late-summer salads (make sure they are organic)

The Best Herb-Pairing Rules:

  • Fish—anise, cilantro, coriander dill, fennel, parsley, sage, thyme
  • Pork—anise, cilantro, coriander, oregano, rosemary
  • Chicken and poultry—anise, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme
  • Vegetables—basil, chives, dill, fennel, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary

Bonus tip: Add a splash of lemon or other citrus fruit when using cilantro or coriander on fish or pork.

Natural Preservatives

Salt is a flavor enhancer, but it's also a preservative. And one of the main reasons it's added to food products is to make sure they don't go bad. But there are some wonderful natural alternatives to the massive amounts of salt put in our foods. Antioxidants like vitamins C and E (you'll see these on labels as ascorbic acid and tocopherol, respectively) also prevent bacterial growth.

In fact, for most of our culinary history prior to refrigeration, herbs and spices were added to foods not to flavor them but to make sure they didn't spoil. Amazingly delicious herbs helped keep out the bacteria that cause food to go bad. Herbs with these antibacterial properties include rosemary, thyme, oregano, cinnamon, hops, cloves, mustard, and allspice.

This also explains why the spiciest foods—the hottest ones that make you sweat—are found in the hottest climates. It's because hot spices like chilies are loaded with capsaicin, which is strongly antimicrobial, and that's how the traditional spices of cultures like India, Mexico, and southeast Asia increased not only the safety of their foods, but the health and flavor, as well.